There was a time when the Philadelphia Eagles and Dallas Cowboys both had a good chance of being undefeated going into an October showdown. That time may be long gone, but this meeting between a pair of 3-3 teams still has a lot of cachet.
The winner will have sole possession of first place in the NFC East. With Washington (1-4) and the New York Giants (0-6) already wrecked on the side of the road, this game will establish pole position for the race ahead.
Todd Archer, who covers the Cowboys for ESPN.com's NFL Nation, and Philadelphia counterpart Phil Sheridan discussed some of the big questions going into the game.
Sheridan: DeMarcus Ware and DeMarco Murray -- whether they're out or just limited by injury -- which can the Cowboys least afford to lose and why?
Archer: To me, the easy answer is Ware because they really don't have much of a pass rush without him. The Cowboys can get by without Murray because of Tony Romo and the passing game. Ware has several little injuries this year with a stinger, a back strain, dehydration, getting poked in the eye and now this quad strain. He says he is a fast healer, but I don't think he'll heal fast enough for this week and the Cowboys will have to get by with what Jerry Jones called the "no-names," like George Selvie, Kyle Wilber and Caesar Rayford.
I'll go with the either/or as well: Michael Vick or Nick Foles? If both are healthy, whom does Chip Kelly eventually roll with?
Sheridan: I wish I knew what Chipper is really thinking. Ultimately, I think he has to get an extended look at Foles this season. Vick's injury opened the door, and Foles certainly took a confident stride through it Sunday, earning NFC Offensive Player of the Week honors in Tampa. But part of being a successful NFL quarterback is coming back, week after week, through nagging injuries and fatigue. Kelly has to know whether Foles can do that before this season is over. Combine that with the fact that Foles may actually run the offense more effectively and I think it may be a while before we see Vick again.
Foles had a good day in Tampa. Now he faces the godfather of the Tampa 2. How is Monte Kiffin's defense coming together after six games?
Archer: To be kind, not well. The Cowboys have allowed three 400-yard passers this season. They allowed 216 rushing yards last week against Washington. They likely won't have Ware, so that will hinder the pass rush. The Cowboys aren't really the true Tampa 2 scheme that Kiffin ran so well in Tampa. First off, he doesn't have Warren Sapp, Derrick Brooks or John Lynch, but the Cowboys are mixing their coverages a lot more because of their cornerbacks. They paid a lot of money for Brandon Carr, Morris Claiborne and Orlando Scandrick and have tried to play more man-to-man lately. They were fairly effective against the Redskins, and that helped the pass rush. They'll have to be that effective this week too.
I mentioned the 216 rushing yards, and LeSean McCoy is on the docket for the Dallas D. He's off to a great start and seems to be a perfect fit in this offense. True?
Sheridan: One hundred percent true, although McCoy might be a pretty good fit in any offense that involves a football. Some of the Broncos, who don't see him often, were comparing him to Barry Sanders, and it's not as big a reach as you might think at first. He's quick, he's strong, he changes direction almost magically, and his instincts are remarkable. For a few weeks, the Eagles were piling up rushing yards without getting enough points. Against Tampa Bay, McCoy went for 116 yards and there was a 31 on the scoreboard. That's where the Eagles need to be.
Let's turn to the Dallas offense. Eagles defensive coordinator Bill Davis said this week what a lot of people think, that Romo is capable of making a big play or a big mistake at any time. How is the franchise quarterback's confidence this year?
Archer: I wonder if Davis has seen Romo play much this year. Maybe he just saw the end of the Broncos game when he had the interception, but Romo has only three picks on the year. One was a busted route by a rookie receiver, and another was a tipped ball. I think his involvement in the game plan really has Romo tuned into the opposing defenses and what they're trying to do. He is not forcing throws (no, I'm not forgetting the late Broncos interception), and he is being more patient than ever. This is his offense in a lot of ways, and he doesn't want to screw it up. That being said, the offense has not performed well in its first two road games, scoring 16 and 14 points against Kansas City and San Diego. In the last two games, the Cowboys have spread it out more, and without Murray this week, I think you'll see more spread looks Sunday.
For so long we've been used to seeing a Jim Johnson-type defense in Philly, but Davis has a different style. What has or hasn't happened so far in the Eagles' move to the 3-4?
Sheridan: It is a process, as Davis and Kelly constantly remind us. It's a tough transition when you have players better suited to a 4-3. It's even tougher with players who aren't suited to any defensive scheme at all. The Eagles seemed to have a few of those while giving up 33 passing touchdowns last year. They made a lot of changes in the secondary, but it has still been vulnerable -- especially on third down. The defense seemed to make progress against the Giants and Bucs, but those are two winless teams. It will be a big deal if the Eagles can continue to make progress against a quarterback like Romo.
How good is Dez Bryant right now, and how much more potent can this offense be if and when Miles Austin gets it going?
Archer: Bryant has carried over his success from the second half of last season to this season, at least in terms of touchdowns. He is a nightmare for cornerbacks in the red zone. He's just too big and physical down there for them to handle. He's almost too physical and might get a pass interference penalty one of these days. But Romo is so confident in him down tight that he'll just throw it up knowing Bryant will get it or nobody else will. What's strange, however, is that Bryant has had three games in which he has averaged less than 10 yards per catch. If teams want to take him out with help, they can. And that's where Austin comes in. He's just not healthy yet but was off to a good start before injuring his hamstring. Rookie Terrance Williams has really caught on lately and helped make up for Austin's absence/lack of production. When he's right, Austin is dangerous in the slot and outside and is a tough matchup.
Let's stick with the receivers. Is DeSean Jackson, well, DeSean Jackson again?
Sheridan: DeSean Jackson is DeSean Jackson, only better. He seems to have matured almost overnight. He says he worked out and added a little muscle mass during the offseason. Not sure whether it's that or Foles or Kelly's offensive approach, but Jackson is suddenly a factor in the red zone. He was always a deep threat but disappeared inside the 20. He has red zone scores in each of the last two games. He'll never be the kind of receiver you described Bryant as being, but he's added a better understanding of the game to his gift of speed.
Both teams are 3-3. It's not exactly the 1990s, when they might both be undefeated when they met in October, but this will still decide who is in first place in the NFC East. Do you think the Cowboys have what it takes to knuckle down and win the division in a decidedly down year?
Archer: I think they do, but if there's one thing I've figured out in covering this team, it is to never come to expect anything. They are just too up and down. There's no doubt the NFC East is down, but the prevailing wisdom is that the Cowboys are infinitely more talented than every other team in the division, so they should run away with it. I don't know about that. They're good at the top but not so much in the middle and bottom. They have a ton of questions on defense. They can't afford injuries. They might have the best chance to win the NFC East, but it's not a lock. This game, to me, is huge. If they can get to 3-0 in the division, it gets a little easier. If they lose, they're riding that 8-8 bus again.
Is Kelly in this for the long haul?
Sheridan: Here's another case where I wish I knew what was going on inside Kelly's head. He's good at talking about football, what he's trying to do and why. He doesn't entertain any questions that appear to be probing into his personal life or his feelings about anything. I think he's learned the NFL is difficult in different ways from the college game. Whether he enjoys being out of his comfort zone and sees it as a challenge to excel at this level or whether he can't wait to get back to a college gig, I have no idea. He just doesn't share that kind of thing. I can say that neither extreme would surprise me. More to the point, I think he can be a very good NFL coach. His offense certainly works in the league.